BEIJING – Chinese warships will join U.S.-led naval drills off Hawaii for the first time this week, in a significant effort by the two powers’ fighting forces to forge connections.
Rising giant China and superpower the United States frequently find themselves at loggerheads as Beijing asserts its interests in maritime disputes with neighbors and Washington seeks to shore up its influence in Asia.
Forging ties — or at least an understanding — between the two heavyweights’ militaries could be a key to preventing unintended clashes from escalating, analysts say.
Yet the relationship remains stunted by disputes and suspicions which have sharpened in recent years as each side accuses the other of inflaming tensions over questions such as contested islands in the East and South China Seas and aggressive cyber-spying.
“It’s pretty important,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Brookings Institution and author of a book on U.S.-China relations.
“We have a situation where small crises or skirmishes blowing up into bigger things is one of our chief worries, and a situation where U.S.-PLA ties at the military level are underdeveloped.”
Four ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy — a missile destroyer, missile frigate, supply ship and hospital ship — will join the U.S. and more than 20 other countries in the six-day “Rim of the Pacific” drills that begin in and around Hawaii on Thursday. An estimated 1,100 Chinese sailors will take part.
This is the first time Chinese vessels are taking part in the RIMPAC exercises, which are normally held every two years and which began in 1971.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, said: “This was a big step for the Chinese to commit to this, particularly in an exercise commanded by a U.S. commander.
“We just have to get past these issues that are historical in nature that are causing the region problems,” he added. “And if we keep working at it we’ll get through them.”
Beijing has also touted its participation, with the official Xinhua News Agency running an essay by naval academy researcher Zhang Junshe saying it “will have great benefits for the elimination of misunderstandings, the avoidance of misjudgment, and the promotion of mutual trust.”
China’s involvement marks “a very good step,” O’Hanlon said in an email. “In isolation it doesn’t do a great deal of course, but it provides the basis for more.”
Beijing and Washington regularly pledge to strengthen ties across the board, and Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama held an informal get-to-know-you summit in California soon after the Chinese leader took office last year.
Both militaries have extended other invitations, including tours of one another’s aircraft carriers and high-level meetings.
But despite the positive rhetoric, tensions have grown — particularly over their roles in Asia — and spilled into unusual public confrontations.
China has emphatically asserted its claims to islands claimed or controlled by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and desires greater global stature, stressing that its standing with the U.S. must reflect a “new model of great-power relations.”
Washington announced a “pivot” to Asia in 2011, including a stronger military presence, with Obama declaring that his country “has been and always will be a Pacific nation.”
At the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore a month ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Beijing of “destabilizing” actions. The Chinese army’s deputy chief of staff, Wang Guanzhong, hit back, criticizing Hagel’s words as “full of incitement, threats, intimidation,” and the U.S. as “stoking fires.”
Cyberspying is another flash point for angry rhetoric, with both sides casting the other as the aggressor.
“You have had a series of incidents that make people pessimistic about the relationship,” said Peking University international relations professor Jia Qingguo.
“At the moment the relationship is at a relative low,” he said. “I don’t know if it has reached the lowest point yet.”
The “mil-mil relationship is the weakest link between the two countries and they often got suspended whenever something happened,” Jia said.
“The militaries need to talk to each other more often and at greater depth.”